Engine Room Column: Why do I have to apply yet again?

The hot summer is fading, and it is refreshing to turn from climate change considerations to less dramatic topics. The grant application period for a lot of foundations is just beginning, and we are once again being asked whether it makes sense for academics in particular to have to apply for funding so often. Kalle Korhonen, Director of Research Funding, shares some of his thoughts in this blog post.
Image by: Christin Hume-Unsplash

Is there reliable research on how much time scholars actually spend writing applications? There is occasionally talk of tens of percent of working time , even 40% , but could that be true? I don’t believe that academics spend two whole days out of each and every working week applying for funding. According to a survey published in Scientific American a decade ago,  “University faculty members spend about 40 percent of their research time navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth.” But, even in the Noughties, some of this must have been administrative work.

Be that as it may, academics spend an increasing portion of their working time applying for funding for their research . Four out of five medical doctors who answered a recent survey published by the Finnish Medical Foundation said it is difficult to get funding for clinical research .

But how difficult should it be to get funding? Which is better: that most researchers find it easy to get funding; or that they find it difficult? This is such a complex issue that I will have to save it for a future Engine Room.

Personally I am convinced that adjusting research plans and rewriting them for different funders forces us to rethink our own research and helps it advance. But is that still the case if a large part of applying for funding consists of submitting the same plans and budgets to different funding agencies? (Although such repeat applications cannot take very much time.) And if the evaluators employed by the different funders base their work on the same criteria, isn’t their work duplicated and pointless? The Finnish Medical Foundation survey cited above prompted tweets from scientists saying they would prefer common funding calls from several funders. But there is only a point in awarding funding from a combined or pooled fund if the funding bodies’ decision criteria are fairly similar.

So why do we still have fixed application periods? What if some of the larger foundations were continually open for applications? How would that affect applying for grants? The Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation  does not have annual bursts of applications, but its funding call is open all the time, and the volume of applications is still manageable. We have been thinking about this option at Kone Foundation, too, as the number of applications has grown and the acceptance rate has fallen close to lottery-type levels. This would not mean continuously awarding funding, rather there would be several dates for funding decisions – maybe 6-8 – each year.

But now, when grant-seeking still follows traditional ways, applicants for grants in the arts and in research can enjoy the various foundations’ services before and during the application period: counselling, info sessions, and peer support. Such support for applicants and collaboration has increased. Do take advantage of this – the time when foundations simply waited for applications to arrive and did little else has gone. Nowadays we really want to help grant seekers.

Kalle Korhonen, Director of Research Funding